RAS LANUF, Libya (Reuters) – A steady stream of rebels in pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns drove toward Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte on Monday, seeking to extend their advance west.
A spokesman in Benghazi said rebels based in east Libya had captured Sirte on Monday, but a Reuters correspondent in the city said there was no sign that rebel forces were in control.
“We heard from Benghazi that the rebels are in Sirte, but it is not for sure because Gaddafi’s soldiers are firing rockets from Sirte, so we are not certain,” 23-year-old Mohamed, a lawyer turned rebel fighter, said in the town of Ras Lanuf.
Emboldened by Western-led air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, rebels in the oil-producing North African country have pushed west along the Mediterranean coast to retake a series of towns in short order.
Reversing earlier losses in a back-and-forth five-week insurgency, they have regained control of all the main oil terminals in eastern Libya, as far as the town of Bin Jawad.
Rebel fighters lined up for petrol at a fuel station in Ras Lanuf, where dozens of pick-ups were heading west along the coast.
Contradicting the rebel claim to have a captured Sirte, an important military base about 450 km (280 miles) west of the capital Tripoli, Reuters correspondent Michael Georgy reported from the city that the situation was normal. He had seen some police and military, but no signs of any fighting.
As Gaddafi’s birthplace, Sirte has great symbolic importance. If it fell, the rebels would gain a great psychological boost and the road toward Tripoli would lie open.
Georgy heard four blasts on Sunday night but it was unclear if they were in Sirte or its outskirts.
He also saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles, including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, leaving Sirte and moving westwards toward Tripoli, along with dozens of civilian cars carrying families and stuffed with personal belongings.
“We want to go to Sirte today. I don’t know if it will happen,” said 25-year-old rebel fighter Marjai Agouri as he waited with 100 others outside Bin Jawad with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and around a dozen pick-up trucks with machineguns mounted on them.
The advance by the poorly armed and uncoordinated force of volunteer rebels suggested that Western air strikes were shifting the battlefield dynamics dramatically, in the east at least.
The rebels are now back in control of the main oil terminals in the east — Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina and Tobruk — while Gaddafi appears to be retrenching in the west. His forces fought rebels on Sunday in the center of Misrata, Libya’s third city.
A rebel spokesman in another western town, Zintan, said forces loyal to Gaddafi bombarded the town with rockets early on Monday, Al Jazeera television reported.
The Western-led military intervention began on March 19 under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians from Gaddafi’s forces as the veteran leader fights an uprising against his 41-year rule.
Since the outset, the mission has faced questions from critics about its scope and aims, including the extent to which it will actively back the rebel side and whether it might target Gaddafi himself.
Asked about NATO’s role in the struggle between the opposing sides, alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the BBC on Monday: “We are there to protect civilians — no more, no less.”
Britain’s Guardian newspaper quoted Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as saying his country was ready to act as mediator and broker an early ceasefire.
Erdogan said if the parties to the conflict requested Turkey to mediate, “we will take steps to do that” within the framework of NATO, the Arab League and the African Union.
At least six blasts resonated in Tripoli on Sunday night, followed by long bursts of anti-aircraft fire by Libyan forces. Libyan television said there had been air strikes on the “civilian and military areas” in the capital.
Libyan state TV broadcast what it said was live footage of Gaddafi in a car in his Tripoli compound where hundreds of supporters waved green flags and chanted slogans. Gaddafi could not be seen in the white car but the TV said he was in it.
On Sunday, NATO agreed to take full command of military operations in Libya after a week of heated negotiations, officials said. The United States, which led the initial phase, had sought to scale back its role in another Muslim country after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Western air strikes had “eliminated” Gaddafi’s ability to move his heavy weapons.
Gates also raised the possibility that Gaddafi’s government could splinter and said an international conference in London on Tuesday would discuss political strategies to help bring an end to Gaddafi’s rule.
Libya accused NATO of “terrorizing” and killing its people as part of a global plot to humiliate and weaken the North African country.
The government says Western-led air attacks have killed more than 100 civilians, a charge denied by the coalition which says it is protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s forces and targeting only military sites to enforce the no-fly zone.
“The terror people live in, the fear, the tension is everywhere. And these are civilians who are being terrorized every day,” said Mussa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman.
“We believe the unnecessary continuation of the air strikes is a plan to put the Libyan government in a weak negotiating position. NATO is prepared to kill people, destroy army training camps and army checkpoints and other locations.”